I've come across a question where me and my teacher disagree on what is the correct answer for a GRE reading comprehension question.

First, here is the passage:

...Before feminist literary criticism emerged in the 1970s, the nineteenth-century United States writer Fanny Fern was regarded by most critics (when considered at all) as a prototype of weepy sentimentalism - a pious, insipid icon of conventional American culture. Feminists reclamations of Fern, by contrast, emphasize her nonsentimental qualities, particularly her sharply humorous social criticism. Most feminist scholars find it difficult to reconcile Fern's sardonic social critiques with her effusive celebrations of many conventional values. Attempting to resolve this contradiction, Harris concludes that Fern employed flowery rhetoric strategically to disguise her subversive goals beneath apparent conventionality. However, Tompkins proposes an alternative view of sentimentality itself, suggesting that sentimental writing could serve radical, rather than only conservative ends by swaying readers emotionally, moving them to embrace social change.

Now the question:

Q. It can be inferred from the passage that Tompkins would be most likely to agree with which of the following about the critics mentioned in the passage?

A) They accurately characterize the overall result Fern is aiming to achieve.

B) They are not as dismissive of Fern as some feminist critics have suggested.

C) They exaggerate the extent to which Fern intended her writing to serve a social purpose.

D) They wrongly assume that sentimental must be a pejorative term.

E) They fail to recognize the role that sentimental rhetoric plays to reader's emotions.

What do YOU think is the correct answer?

I chose E), but my teacher says the correct answer is D)

I disagree with my teacher because, clearly, the critics were dismissive about the strong sentimentality of Fern's works; they were not making wrong assumptions about the term sentimental. If anything, they failed to appreciate the function of the sentimentality, according to Tompkins. I can't grasp the notion that those critics made wrong "assumptions" about sentimentality as a term... but my teacher argues that since critics were negative about sentimentality of Fern's work, D) is the correct answer.

My teacher also says E) could be the better answer if the question compared Harris and Tompkins, since Harris asserted that the role of sentimentality was to mask Fern's goals. What do you think? What are your opinions?


The problem with (E) is that it assumes to be fact what Tompkins is trying to establish. The words "suggesting" and "could" in the last sentence are terms that point to interpretation rather than fact, so "fail to recognize" is somewhat too severe a characterisation of those of a different persuasion.

In contrast, (D) makes the observation that the critics treated sentimental as a pejorative term, consistent with the paragraph. The possibility of inverting that observation is consistent with Tompkins' thesis.

We can look at it another way: which can be more readily disputed?

(E) can be countered by saying that the critics and Tompkins both recognise a role. They disagree on what exactly that role is, so there is no unified "the role" to fail to recognise. (D) cannot be countered from the given paragraph.

Hence in this context, (D) is a better answer than (E).

| improve this answer | |
  • Interpretation is expected when the question is "It can be inferred from the passage that Tompkins would be most likely to agree with" – JeffUK Jun 25 '18 at 8:55
  • "It can be inferred from the text that Tompkins would say that the other critics fail to recognize the role that sentimental rhetoric plays to reader's emotions." Nothing in the text gives us any information about whether or not the critics believe that 'Sentimental' is strictly perjorative, nor what Tompkins thinks about that fact. – JeffUK Jun 25 '18 at 9:01
  • What about Tompkins thinking that the critics' assumption about the term "sentimental" was wrong? I don't think Tompkins was concerned whether their assumption about the term was right or wrong; critics were not basing their opinion on the term, but rather judged Fern's work to be extremely sentimental in the first place (as far as the text suggests). This led me to think that Tompkins would not agree that the critics were making wrong assumptions about the term - they just didn't like Fern's work because it was sentimental, not because it was "labeled" as "sentimental." – Simonet Jun 26 '18 at 9:58
  • @seeweedkim If I understand your comment correctly, you're distinguishing between disliking the work on its own merits (as it were) and disliking it because of its label. I agree that the former was intended, not the latter. I don't think (D) favours the label argument. It was more about the definition of the term. Think of it as saying something like "They didn't like it because it was sentimental and they think that being sentimental detracts from their cause. But is being sentimental really so bad? Yes, it's sentimental, but here's how being sentimental actually helps their cause ...". – Lawrence Jun 26 '18 at 10:09
  • 1
    @Lawrence thank you for your explanation. I'm still not 100% convinced that Tompkins would specifically point out how the critics assumed the term, but I also understand that D) can be interpreted more broadly – Simonet Jun 27 '18 at 7:54

I agree with your teacher, and I think I can offer a little guidance for how to get there.

The passage puts forth five actors: Fern, "most critics," feminists (alongside whom I pair "feminist scholars"), Harris, and Tompkins.

The questions specifies two of those: Critics and Tompkins. So our answer should only be based on how we should expect Tompkins to respond to the critics position that Fern was somewhat pathetic, a weak agent for change, and a re-enforcer of (undesirable) cultural boxes.

Claiming that learned critics of rhetoric do not understand the power of pathos is a pretty bold position. It would be quite surprising to hear of Tompkins taking that position because it contradicts what everyone in the field takes as a pretty well-established truth. Pathos is powerful, and I'd not expect (nor should anyone expect) for critics to stay relevant professionally if they don't understand that sentimental rhet plays upon the reader's emotions.

But the critics do use sentimentalism pejoratively--even modifying it with an ironically pathetic adjective. It wouldn't shock me that Tompkins might accuse those critics of erroneously assuming sentimentality is automatically negative, because that assumption is even now common and reasonably defensible. Pair that with the passage's attributing to Tompkins a penchant for "alternative view," and we're onto something.

We should assume that Tompkins and the critics are both reasonable and educated. Answer E requires us to imagine Tompkins accusing critics of something pretty outlandish. Answer D casts Tompkins in the role of suggesting the critics' normal assumption overlooks a subtle complexity wherein a typically negative sentimentality has been employed as an unexpectedly effective device (a quintessentially alternative view).

| improve this answer | |
  • Surely "Assuming that sentimental must be a pejorative term." is pretty outlandish too. – JeffUK Jun 25 '18 at 9:37
  • I was thinking about that...but this is in the context of a female writer earning criticism from colleagues who were just pushing the buds of America's version of feminism through the topsoil. For a woman to be sentimental at a time when a male-dominated field sort of blatantly shared their opinions that sentimental is all that women can be, I can see the term becoming as much a always negative as "aggressive" is sort of becoming now. I wasn't there for it, but I don't find this belief completely beyond the pale. – Prince of Rhetoric Jun 25 '18 at 9:38
  • 1
    That's quite an impressive chain of reasoning... google suggests you, and the teacher, are right, I guess I would have got it wrong! – JeffUK Jun 25 '18 at 10:10

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.